The Pentagon on Tuesday unveiled its first Operational Energy Strategy," a plan to fundamentally transform the way fuel is used in the theater of war.
Clean-energy advocates have heaped praise on the plan, saying it could also drive major energy innovations in the commercial sector.
The strategy is a formal step forward in a broad effort by senior Defense officials to cut the military's dependence on oil and expand its use of alternative energy, as troops lose their lives protecting fuel convoys trucked through Afghanistan and soaring oil prices drive up the Pentagon's energy bills. The U.S. military is the single largest industrial consumer of oil in the world. In 2010, it spent $13 billion on fuel; in 2008, when oil prices reached a record of $147 a barrel, the military spent nearly $20 billion.
Last year, Congress created a Defense Office of Operational Energy aimed at changing that. With the rollout of the formal strategy, Pentagon planners will for the first time treat energy as a distinct military program or capability, like troops, weapons, or cybercapabilities. One way the strategy is being implemented: for the first time, strategies to acquire and move energy supplies are now being incorporated into war games.
"It's a very important capability for our forces, but we haven't really looked at it that way in the past," Sharon Burke, the Pentagon's new assistant secretary of Defense for operational energy, told National Journal in an interview. "Before, it was assumed energy would be where you needed when you needed it…. We hadn't defined energy innovation as important to military capability. The new strategy is to say that energy is a strategic good that enables your military force."
Amory Lovins, an energy expert who is chairman the Rocky Mountain Institute and advised military officials on developing elements of the strategy, said that the Pentagon's transformation of its energy strategy will have profound effects on the nation's broader energy economy. "Now that the Pentagon is starting to value saved energy, that will drive extraordinary innovation in vehicles, buildings, generators, and onsite renewables," he said. "That value is one or two times more valuable than commercial market. Those products and technology will find themselves back into market - it will greatly accelerate the energy revolution."
The strategy has three basic components. The top priority, called "More fight, less fuel," boils down to basic energy efficiency - using less energy, spending less money. That means investing in new technology that can power the same tanks, jets, and aircraft carriers with less conventional fuel, such as hybrid and electric engines. It also means low-tech solutions like lightening cargo loads and finding new, shorter aircraft routes.
"The No. 1 thing is we've got to use less. Ten years from now if we've done our jobs, everything that uses energy today will use less," said Burke.
The second priority is "More options, less risk." This translates into a drive to diversify energy sources. Today, almost all military operations rely on petroleum. The idea is to create different sources to do the same work -- using solar power instead of diesel to operate bases, as two bases in Afghanistan's Helmand province are doing, or biofuels to fly jet planes
The third is "More capability, less cost: Build energy security into the future force." The idea there is to build the goals of reducing energy use and increasing energy options into all the military's long-term planning - an approach that could yield deep structural changes in military operations in decades to come.
"We need to build this into the future force," Burke said. "At the end of the day, it's how military is structured, and postured, and organized, and equipped that's going to drive energy demand. We need to get into all the strategic planning and development, all the ways we build military force, and add energy as a consideration so that the force uses energy as an advantage and not a vulnerability."
Right now, the energy strategy consists of a new office, a new way of thinking about energy, and a three-point plan laid out in an 11-point memo that's full of slogans but short on specifics.
But officials on the ground have already begun putting teeth in it. In a June 7 memo to all troops in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus laid out orders to begin conserving fuel immediately.
"Operational energy" is the lifeblood of our warfighting capabilities and a key enabler of Coalition operations in Afghanistan," Petraeus wrote. "Commanders will make energy-informed, risk-based decisions on aviation operations, vehicle operations, power and water generation…Commanders will push for rapid technology transition of new fuel savings methods to the field, where appropriate, and will pursue exiting, proven alternative energy options that reduce the use and transport of fuel."